Afghanistan: US puppet Karzai's popularity plummets
London -- Wednesday, June 28 2006
Distempered days Also at: Pakistan -- Thursday, June 29, 2006, Jamadi-us-sani 2, 1427 A.H.
Karzai’s authority eroding fast
By Declan Walsh
KABUL: The grumbling men gathered in Maiwand, a southern town of slouching shops, greasy truck stops and alarming violence. Days earlier a roadside bomb killed four police, they said. Taliban spies roamed the bazaar. Foreign soldiers visited infrequently.
But for a moment inside the pokey shop, the current of debate swirled angrily around Afghanistan’s amiable leader, Hamid Karzai. “Pah,” said Abdul Ali Maiwandi impatiently. “He speaks well but fails to act. He would be a good president if he delivered on his promises. But there is nothing but trouble.”
The southern shopkeeper is not the only one raising uncomfortable questions about Mr Karzai’s leadership as Afghanistan lurches through its worst crisis since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. Surging Taliban violence has caused 600 deaths in the past six weeks. Corruption is rife and drug smuggling is virtually holding the economy hostage.
Karzai, 48, once hailed as the best hope for galvanising a fractious nation, is increasingly blamed. There are no opinion polls, but his popularity has undeniably dipped sharply. Ordinary Afghans are angry he has failed to deliver them from abrasive poverty or to fire corrupt officials. Western diplomats say he has reneged on promises of reform in favour of bullying warlords.
And in the south, where the Taliban have made a dramatic return this year, some hold Karzai indirectly responsible for US and British bombing campaigns that have caused most of the 600 deaths.
The sense of resentment exploded in Kabul in late May when a US military road accident touched off citywide riots that left about 20 people dead. Suddenly even the old jibes about Karzai being the “Mayor of Kabul” a reference suggesting his power was limited to the capital rang less true. The barrage of criticism has caused US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to fly to Kabul to bolster America’s main Afghan ally. “This is an extraordinary leader and we’re going to back him and back him fully,” she told reporters on the plane.
Yet four years ago, after he was propelled to power by the US, Karzai could do little wrong. Charming, urbane and respected, the royal-blooded Pashtun wooed billions of pounds in western development funds to help rebuild his country. Admirers spoke of his dignified poise; the Gucci designer Tom Ford termed him the “most chic man on earth”.
Karzai toiled to forge consensus among Afghanistan’s sparring factions, urging them to embrace his vision of a unified nation unspoiled by ethnic rivalries. The October 2004 presidential election, which he won with 54 per cent of votes, confirmed that most Afghans agreed with his ideas. But as chaos spilled across the countryside this summer, those qualities are shadowed by questions. Karzai looks increasingly isolated inside his fortified Kabul palace. He remains an inspiring statesman, many agree. But is he a good leader?
There have been a number of stumbles. A bad-tempered war of words with President Pervez Musharraf has plunged relations with Pakistan to their lowest level in years.
Karzai is affected by dark rumblings about powerful officials being involved in the drugs trade (including one of his own brothers) that refuse to go away. And his dependence on foreign aid over 30,000 troops and billions in cash can make him look impotent.
Six months ago, for example, Karzai ordered the removal of concrete bomb barriers outside foreign embassies, which snarl the traffic and annoy many Afghans. The barriers are still standing. But now the foreigners are also unhappy, particularly with his reluctance to sideline the faction leaders who helped destroy the country during a quarter century of war, yet remain powerful. Earlier this month, for example, European diplomats were livid at the appointment of 13 new police chiefs, all of whom had links to crime or human rights abuses.
“This is unacceptable,” said one. “It undermines the efforts we have already agreed upon.” Relations soured further with a plan to arm southern villagers against the Taliban. Karzai’s officials termed the force “community policemen”. Others saw it as the rearming of warlords’ militias. Japan, which has spent $100m (£54.9m) on disarming 62,000 gunmen, is particularly displeased.
The finger-pointing has provoked bitter indignation from Karzai’s officials, who accuse the foreigners of hypocritical meddling. “People forget this is the president they are talking about. It’s his responsibility to do his best for the people,” said chief of staff Jawed Ludin. Other officials say the West is blaming Karzai for a mess that it created four years ago an argument with some validity.
In 2001, US military had too few troops in Afghanistan to establish control over rural areas. So they turned to regional mujahideen commanders, who also helped with the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban remnants. Today’s chaos partly results from this myopic, cut-price nation-building. The warlords have become drug kingpins, engaged in spectacular corruption, or deeply embedded themselves in national politics.
“The president was never opposed to cleaning the slate and separating good from bad,” said one frustrated palace insider. “But you know who stopped him?” The sharp talk may be just a product of stressful times. In public, Karzai maintains an air of confidence, visiting Baghlan province to open a $30m road this week. And most Afghans say they can’t imagine another leader.
But failure to tackle the three factors that threaten Afghanistan more than ever drugs, thugs and corruption could endanger more than just Karzai’s popularity ratings. Just ask the shopkeepers of Maiwand.